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Maintaining a Vision of The Good Life in a Time of Change

By Karma Kitaj, PhD

When you think of living the Good Life, what experiences define that state for you? Is it peace of mind? Security in knowing that whatever happens, you will always have your basic needs taken care of? Is it zest for life – waking up every day with curiosity about what you will encounter either in yourself or in connection with others? Is it deep communication with friends and family? Is it performing meaningful activities that help others or serve the world community?

Because of the tumultuous world economy today, many of us have difficulty accessing the Good Life, either literally because we don’t have the income to feel secure or we are affected by the trials of others. What can we do to retain a vision of what we consider to be the Good Life?

First, we have to define for ourselves what really matters. There are many ways that people define The Good Life. Richard Leider, author, coach, and educator, defines it as “the achievement of positive balance – living in the place you belong, with people you love, while doing the right work on purpose ... Purpose is the glue that holds the Good Life together.”

The insurance company, Met Life, commissioned a market research survey based on Leider’s formulation of the power of purpose in propelling us into the Good Life. The Met Life Mature Market Institute published a report in January 2009 called “Discovering What Matters: Balancing Money, Medicine [or health] and Meaning” based on a survey of 1000 online respondents between ages 45-74. Overall, when asked to project five years out, people in the study allocated the most importance to Meaning, as opposed to money or even health. And, as people matured, they had even more of a sense of purpose in living lives of meaning.

Martin Seligman, psychologist of “happiness,” discusses different ways of thinking of the Good Life. The Hollywood version, he suggests, convinces us that the more we have positive feelings, the more we have happiness. These moments of laughter, giggles, or satiety could give us momentary pleasure, and I believe that there’s nothing wrong with experiencing that. In fact, laughing is considered to be a healthful activity, relieving stress and muscle tension.

But, Seligman introduces another way of knowing the Good Life, one that Thomas Jefferson and Aristotle meant by the pursuit of happiness. To them it was more about contemplation, such as when we are having a good conversation with a like-minded person. I suppose this form of happiness could be a solitary one, found in reading, prayer, writing, or painting. It involves “deep absorption and immersion,” now called “Flow,” or being “in the Zone,” according to Seligman.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined flow as a state of being totally involved in whatever we are doing, be it an artistic endeavor, being with our children, dinner with friends, or any aspect of our work life. When in flow, we are un-self-conscious, we lose track of time’s passing, we are not judging ourselves. We are completely in the moment. It does not necessarily involve pleasure; probably there is no consciousness of feelings or thoughts at all.

Another view of the Good Life comes from two different researchers, Dr. Chris Peterson of the University of Michigan (chrispet@umich.edu) and Veronica Huta (vhuta@ego.psych.mcgill.ca) from McGill University. Both found an astonishing outcome: that the Good Life, achieving life satisfaction, is related more to meaning and that the amount of pleasure does nothing to add to a feeling of life satisfaction.

Seligman describes a new classification of strengths and virtues and is interested in discovering to what extent these are more predictive of happiness, or the Good Life, than are other definitions of happiness, such as pleasure. The clusters are: 1) wisdom and knowledge, 2) courage, 3) love and humanity, 4) justice, 5) temperance or moderation, and 6) spirituality or transcendence. Based on his group’s studies of what promotes happiness in 70 nations all over the world from Greenland to the Masai in East Africa, he believes that this new classification sheds light on the Good Life for all of humanity.

For inspiration about work-related projects that people are doing that likely equal the Good Life for them, see the bios of those who won the Purpose Prize, given out yearly to people who have invested in meaningful enterprises that add to the greater good. See www.purposeprize.org.

Regardless of your experience in this time of economic turmoil, how can you access some of the states of mind referred to above? None of them are directly dependent upon your income or how much money you have lost from your retirement savings. According to up-to-date research findings, your life satisfaction would seem to depend much more on your perceptions, your attitudes, on the ways in which you have found you can invest in experiences that are meaningful to you.

    Consider finding your Good Life in these ways:
  • Keep a daily log for a week. Rank each experience relative to what extent it gives you a sense of the Good Life (10 being very well and 1 being not at all).
  • Collect all the Good Life experiences and underline the commonalities among them; e.g. are they mostly contemplative, solo experiences, personal connection experiences, learning, teaching, challenging yourself?
  • State an overall description of what gives you a sense of the Good Life.
  • If you need more information, review your life history in 5-year increments. Write lists of all those experiences that gave you a sense of the Good Life in the past.
  • Again, rank each on a scale from 1-10.
  • To what extent can you build these into your life now?

James A. Michener wrote:
"The masters in the art of living make little distinction between their work and their play, their labor and their leisure, their minds and their bodies, their information, their recreation, their love and their religion. They hardly know which is which; they simply pursue their vision of excellence at whatever they do, leaving others to decide whether they are working or playing."